Oyster roasts are as much a part of the coastal landscape as sand and watersports. Whether you’re in your own backyard or sliding up to an oyster bar in one of the region’s many restaurants, going raw or roasting, oysters are serious business for coastal North Carolinians, right up there with barbecue and hushpuppies. So is the tool with which those shells are breeched.
For Michael Waller and Kirk Davis, shucking oysters has taking a more artistic turn through their growing company, Carolina Shuckers.
The duo grew up as friends in Kinston, heading to ECU together after graduation, where they both earned bachelor’s degrees in sculpture. After college Davis set up shop in Greenville, opening a studio where he focused on metalwork, wrought iron hand rails and what he refers to as “funky functional furniture.” The workspace was conveniently located across the road from Hatteras Hammocks, who he did some product design work for. Waller moved further inland, taking a job with Carolina Bronze, a foundry in Seagrove.
“Our jobs after school sort of played on what we wanted to do, from casting bronze to working on commercial and residential projects. We were both pursing our own careers as artists,” said Davis.
In 2000, however, he moved to the beach. First maintaining his studio in Greenville and later opening ArtForm Studio in Morehead City, which provides custom metalwork to designers and architects as well as custom made art.
“So there we are,” said Davis. “We’re both making art, loving life, happy that we were able to do what we love, you know, and make a living. That’s really all anyone can ask for.”
Oysters roasts, he notes, were always a part of the landscape.
“My grandmother had a second home in Salter Path and somewhere along the way that whole beach culture was just instilled in us – and that definitely included oyster roasts,” Davis said. “We loved the laid back atmosphere at the beach. It was that place you could always go back to – a place to relax and get away from it all.”
And it was an invitation to an oyster roast about 10 years or so ago, Davis said, that started the ball rolling.
“We had this idea to make ourselves oyster knives to take with us,” said Davis. “There were crude but functional, made from an old piece of scrap metal. But people kept complimenting them and asking where they came from. So we ended up going to another and we made some extra to give away as gifts to friends since they had liked them so much. They were really crude – just thrown together – but they had a blade and they fit in your hand good so it worked.”
From there, word of the custom oyster knives spread like wildfire. The friends who had received them as gifts put theirs to use, and each time they took their custom knife to an oyster roast someone would inevitably ask where they got it.
“People were always asking about them so we thought we’d make up a batch and sell them to friends,” said Davis. “A birthday would come along and someone would ask us to make one. Then Christmas came. And it just progressively grew from people putting their hands on them and using them. Word was out – Mike and Kirk have these cool knives. They were getting cleaner as we went, more thought out, but still not where they are today.”
Somewhere along the way, a year or so in, the pair were have a few beers and realized that if there is one thing you need to use in addition to your oyster shucker, it’s a beer opener. So they incorporated a bottle opener to the design.
The men began to realize they may be on to something here; a little sideline if nothing else. The economy had started to droop and both men were feeling the pinch as consumers tightened their belts.
“We were sitting around one night, drinking a few beers … again,” laughed Davis. “and we started talking about the shuckers a little more seriously. By this point the economy had taken a dive and you can imagine being an artist and doing what we do when the economy isn’t there to sustain it. Nobody was spending money on high end stuff – the railings the gates. So you could say that Carolina Shuckers is the byproduct of that little spell in our economy.”
They started by refining their product, coming up with various designs, some lighter, some heavier, some with thumb depressions, others with bottle openers.
“We just made a bunch of product and coined names for them,” said Davis. “Mother Shucker, Little Big Boy and Old Big Boy, Beer Shucker – because if anything can be shucked, it’s a beer,” he added with a chuckle. “We decided to start introducing the product at a decoy festival in little Washington but we had no idea what to expect.”
The response, he said, blew their minds. People lined up for the chance to own one of these small pieces of art. “We couldn’t sell them fast enough,” Davis said. And that was just the beginning.
More shows and festivals followed, from the NC Seafood Festival in Morehead City to the Southeastern Wildlife Expo in Charleston. Word reached “Our State” magazine and when the article came out, Davis said they were bombarded. Stores and restaurants came calling and before long, people had the chance to hold a Carolina Shucker at retail establishments, with some even requesting an original design for their location. “Our State” now sells an original and Chef and the Farmer in Kinston uses knives designed for them at their oyster bar. The knives are carried at a growing number of retail establishments, including Orvis.com; EJW Outdoors, Morehead City; Sportsman’s Toy Store, New Bern; Tidewater Gallery, Swansboro; and Lone Leaf Gallery in Washington. Stores in Massachusetts, San Francisco, Martha’s Vineyard, Seattle, Hilton Head and other major markets have picked up the tools as well.
“It has been a wild ride,” said Davis, who gives no sign of slowing down anytime soon. “While we’ve definitely polished our methods, the knives are, and will continue to be, all handmade and hand stamped with our logo. No two knives are identical. They really are a really cool functional piece of art that you can hold in your hand. And they make great gifts – we get a lot of calls from bachelor parties.”
This year, the men visited more trade shows than ever before and now ships to buyers overseas through their website. Knives have gone to China, Australia and England, said the artist.
“It feels amazing. We’re both excited that we’re doing something that we enjoy doing, making a living and feeling really proud of the product we are able to produce. Personally, I get a great amount of satisfaction making something functional out of nothing, something that you know people are going to use time and time again,” Davis said. “The holiday season is always our busiest time, so we’re eagerly looking forward to what the 2015 season brings us.
“If we had to attribute our success to anything, I’d have to thank the people who work in our oyster industry – the people who are working hard to cultivate them and distribute them and maintain the habitat – because let’s face it, we have some of the best tasting oysters I’ve ever come across and it’s that love of oysters that has brought us to where we are today.”
The knives retail for about $40 and can be purchased at carolinashuckers.com.